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Wisconsin Supreme Court: Officers Who Smelled Marijuana Had Right to Search Vehicle for Drugs

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A Wisconsin state Supreme Court’s ruling has given officers across the state the authority to search an individual in a vehicle if they smell marijuana, even though substances now deemed legal in the state can have a similar scent.

By a narrow 4-3 margin, the court’s conservative majority ruled that Marshfield officers were within their legal authority to search Quaheem Moore in 2019 after pulling him over for speeding and then detecting the smell of cannabis emanating from the vehicle. The state high court’s ruling overturns lower court rulings that found officers had no way of knowing for certain if what they were smelling was an illegal substance.

During the stop four years ago, Moore told officers that a vaping device he had contained CBD and that the rental vehicle belonged to his brother. As the legal proceedings played out, Moore argued that officers never smelled marijuana on him and had no reason to believe he was directly responsible for the smell.

Moore was formally hit with possession of narcotics charges after officers reportedly found small bags of cocaine and fentanyl in his pockets. With possession of marijuana not being among the charges he faced, Moore’s legal team argued that because police did not smell marijuana on him and given the legality of substances like CBD and hemp, officers did not have probable cause to conduct the search and that any drugs found as part of it should not be allowed as evidence.

In rendering the court’s majority opinion, Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote that with Moore being the only person in the vehicle, it was safe for officers to assume that he “was probably connected with the illegal substance the officers identified.”

The ruling comes as the latest twist in the ongoing battle between Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state over the issue of legalizing marijuana, with the court’s three liberal judges immediately blasting the ruling as outdated and not accounting for all the possibilities.

“Officers who believe they smell marijuana coming from a vehicle may just as likely be smelling raw or smoked hemp, which is not criminal activity,” Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Soon after the verdict was made public, Moore’s attorney Joshua Hargrove also warned “this opinion could subject more citizens engaged in lawful behavior to arrest.”

For years now, marijuana has been legal in neighboring states Illinois and Michigan, but with Republicans in firm control of the state legislature in Wisconsin, attempts by Gov. Tony Evers to legalize the drug have been rejected.

Ben Yount - The Center Square
The Center Square contributor
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